The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the Search for the Numinous.

I’ve been in many churches, read many religious texts. I’ve even prayed – though I felt like a bit of a fool at the time – just in case there was something there that might answer. And I’ve never felt anything in response. Not a single part of me stirs to organised religion, or to the texts it is based on – indeed the opposite is the case. It is atheism that sparks my emotional response, my rational understanding. The idea that we stand alone, looking into the abyss, and that that is all there is has something terribly attractive about it, emotionally-speaking. It may be bleak, and wintry, and there may be no hope in it, but the feeling it inspires in me is one of empathy and loyalty. I wonder why this is so? It cannot be just because my reason says that it is truth. If anything, it is the emotional attachment to the feelings that the bleakness of atheism can inspire that is my anchor to it. And yet, those who are religious are often so because of feeling rather than reason. They are like me, in their own way, and I don’t know why. Is there an inadequacy within myself that I can’t recognise or relate to what motivates them: their experience of the numinous as interpreted by their faith?

Yet I don’t believe this is the case. I’ve never been religious, was raised in a family without religion, and yet I know the numinous. Ironically, it was C.S. Lewis who showed the way – I say ironically, because I usually find his reasoning limited and inadequate when it comes to religion. But his feelings I can understand. In the book of his childhood, Surprised by Joy, he talks of his experiences reading northern mythology, and how his reactions to it prepared him for his later conversion to Christianity:

yggdrasill“Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago (it hardly seems longer now) in Tegner’s Drapa, that Siegfried (whatever it might be) belonged to the same world as Balder and the sunward-sailing cranes. And with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heart-break, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods, and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to “have it again” was the supreme and only important object of desire.”

My experience was different from Lewis’. I don’t say that I felt the same thing as he did, but I do recognise his experiences as kin to mine. I never had the childhood memory to forget and then fall back on again. All my experiences have come as an adult, and always from literature – specifically, non-religious literature – or music. It’s rare, but it happens. The literature a reasonable person would expect to find evidence of some sort of spirituality beyond the natural gives me not a shred of emotional response. But the few textual instances that do provoke this response are, as far as I have experienced, limited to the odd, brief passage in fantasy literature – specifically, that literature that resonates with northern mythology.

And welcome as those brief flashes of something beyond what I know to be present are, I find them unsettling.

In normal, everyday environments my atheism functions extremely well. But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t understand the feeling of the numinous, and that I didn’t want to feel it again. If only because to know it and not feel it is becoming unbearable.

Northern mythology tells of a battle called Ragnarök, a final battle where the forces of chaos defeat those or order and cause the destruction of the world. The Völuspá saga tells of the descent into darkness that portends the end, and one of those portents is the monstrous winter – three years of winter without a summer, without sun or warmth. I don’t believe that this is anything more than a story; I don’t have any pagan inclinations. But the metaphor suffices. Lately, I feel as if I have descended into that winter, and I can’t seem to pull myself out.

the_prophet

It’s true that there’s a history of depression in my family, and that I may just be the next one on the genetic tree to get it. All the symptoms are there. It’s also true that to attribute it to any great crisis in non-faith is maybe being just a little bit melodramatic. Who am I that such a crisis should come to me? But increasingly, that monstrous winter is sinking its claws into me, and there’s no-one to talk to about it. I simply don’t trust anyone I know enough to let them see more than a very carefully constructed shell of how I know I should behave. This is where the internet is helpful, because I don’t know anyone reading this, and anyone reading this will never know me, never meet me, never miss me if I can’t find my way out of the ice, find my own path out of Ragnarök and into renewal.

And also increasingly, I begin to feel as if those momentary, scattered experiences of the numinous are all that is holding me together. Again, that may just be a misinterpretation of an experience, or it may be presumption. But I never felt the isolation I feel now before I began to understand the numinous experientially. If it’s a manifestation of some bizarre brain chemistry, I would like to know so that I can learn to recognise it and live without it – I see no point in fostering a delusion for the sake of leaning on some great universal sympathy that doesn’t actually exist. Better to grow a backbone and face my own Fimbulvetr with a little bit of courage. I would almost prefer this, even though I’m not brave and see not possibility of ever becoming so, because the alternative – that there is a reason for the numinous, and that behind that reason is a rationale for leaving me to feel this alone… that is truly unbearable. How can anyone face that with courage, how can that inspire any sort of faith?

I think a person can only get so lonely before the fear of becoming lonelier fails to instil any terror. At that point, you just have to huddle within yourself like some dumb animal and hope that it passes before doing something not very brave at all, like… well, you can guess, I’m sure.

Except it isn’t passing, I’m not a dumb animal who can wait forever, and I am at the point where loneliness has almost ceased to matter. I want answers, and I want not to have to sit through an unending winter to get them. If only because I don’t believe that I can survive it.

How to continue to live as an atheist while still experiencing the numinous… that’s the kind of road-map I don’t seem to be able to find. So where to from here?

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the New Trinity

There are times when life just isn’t fair, where something like the death of a child unbalances all our expectations, and makes us wonder about the justice of a world where such could happen without pity or reason. Sometimes the blindness of justice speaks not to the fairness of a particular outcome, but to the fact that there is no outcome at all. Guilt is not determined in cases where guilt clearly exists, and victims are left without answers or closure.

justice

This is one of the reasons why faith exists. That there is a more just outcome, even in another world, speaks to the need for a reason imposed on suffering, justice that we consider to be part of a trinity of emotion circling around a disembodied Father of righteousness. With the coming of the New Testament, that expectation of justice was weakened with the embodied expression of love, where believing in that embodiment could bypass justice, where sins could be forgiven even at the last by a love so indiscriminate that it might as well be blind also. Justice and love: the rocks on which the church was built, and all that was needed to access these two foundations was faith. The Holy Ghost, then, was in us, and the only body that we could see, or need to see, was ours. Faith was to be absorbed into the body, carved into the marrow, a bone-deep realisation that would transcend both flesh and reason and reconcile the Trinity to itself as the basis of the ethical world.

cupid

But what happens when faith is no longer possible? How can the trinity survive if one of the foundations is gone, and the embodiment of the principles underlying a theist universe no longer exists? For the father cannot be touched, and even if the son existed his body is lost to us, and faith cannot transubstantiate it into bread or bone to be a touchstone for those to whom faith is lost.

We need the experience of the body, for the body we inhabit has limits that cannot be transcended by our understanding of mortality. For the faithless, the question of love and justice cannot be connected with our own bodies within the understanding of the old trinity. When reason tells us that survival of faith after bodily dissolution does not exist, then the question of justice becomes one of disembodiment, where outcomes are neither certain nor fair, and the disconnection between the individual body and the untouchable body of justice is complete.

Can reason breach this gap; provide a bridge over the broken foundations of the old understanding? What does it mean for our understanding of the underpinnings of the universe if it cannot? Must we live in a world where our knowledge of love and justice is believed illusion, a cultural construct where the quiet voice within us that perceives injustice is a ghost of a past culture, given embodiment in us? If so, what happens in the days to come when that ghost is silenced?

If the choice is between an old trinity that cannot be believed in, and the wreckage of that trinity held together by a changing ghost, can we not form a new trinity? A new trinity for the faithless, where love and justice have their places, but are bolstered rather than underpinned by a third pillar, one which stands as our minds and our bones amidst both culture and reason.

For we live in the Body of rather than the Age of Reason, we who live in an age where both love and justice are blind. One cannot be just without compassion, and love is facile where there is no knowledge. To stake a claim to one or the other, to carve it into our flesh and bones as the rock we would have others stand upon when that flesh is gone is to become blind ourselves, to set up false idols in the place of Enlightenment.

reason

If there is a trinity, it encompasses more than love and justice. Perhaps the true Holy Ghost is mortality, the knowledge that blindness is imperfection – and that imperfection fails.

If love is for the young, the open-eyed wonder of their rightful place in a welcoming world, then justice is for the middle-aged, the scale fallen from their eyes and into their hands. The old are meant for mortality, in whose darkness the true blindness of the remaining trinity is illuminated – before reason itself dies bodily, and the Age is over.

But when the order is reversed, and mortality stands over the young, for a moment it stands for and before us all – and the knowledge that there is no perfect love, no perfect justice, gives the clarity of perfect vision for one perfect moment. It tells us that this life is all that we have; and what our reason makes it, what rock our blindness chooses to stand upon, is the meaning we choose to carve into our bones for when our flesh is gone.

See more posts by Eva at her blog.

Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the New Creation

Our reaction to pain defines us. It tells us who we are. Do we suffer it in silence, or lash back? Do we endure it, seek it out, or scramble madly through life trying to avoid it? Is pain a good, a bad, or a morally neutral sensation?

From a purely physical standpoint, this is a relatively easy question to answer. Pain is the body’s warning that something isn’t right; that if you will insist on kicking that table in a fit of temper, you might end up with a broken foot. It’s something you evade, unless there’s a good reason to endure it, like a vaccination at the doctor’s. But emotional pain… that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. One cannot avoid it by living in a community, and one cannot exempt oneself by living outside of that community.

I don’t know what this pain is for, or whether it has the evolutionary advantage of physical pain. But like physical pain, our emotional response to pain, to grief, and to evil and loneliness delineates us, and allows us to carve out our own moral identity.

So, what are we? What does pain tell us about ourselves – and must we listen to it?

This is one of the central questions in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion – especially that argument that deals with the ethical cause and effects of pain. If God exists and created such unhappiness, why would he do so? Is he not supposed to be a loving parent? And if God does not exist, how can we find meaning and fairness in a world that is both directionless and unjust?

How we answer this question defines our approach to the world around us. What are we? Are we Galatea, or are we Pygmalion? The two answers are fundamentally different, and they encompass, in a mythological nutshell, the theist and atheist understanding of pain – and all the evil, and grief, and loneliness that pain entails.

Fittingly, both Galatea and Pygmalion come from the same story, and stand as opposites within that narrative. One creates, the other is created. Pygmalion is a legendary Cypriot figure – one of the finest sculptors that the world has ever seen, but a man who had never been in love. When he began his masterwork, a woman sculpted out of ivory, he created something so beautiful and so realistic that, for the first time, he fell in love with another being – he dresses her, brings her presents, and wishes with all his heart that she were real. He names her Galatea; but Galatea is unresponsive – a cold and empty image of a living woman. Desperate, Pygmalion prays to Venus, the goddess of love. Taking pity on him, Venus brings the statue to life – and every curve that Pygmalion has cut, every rounded plane that he has chiselled and sanded out of chill ivory breathes and lives and laughs – and cries.

C.S. Lewis used the Galatea solution in his approach to the problem of pain. He argued – in his own agony after the death of his wife – that the vivisection-feeling of pain and grief is the stroke of God’s chisel, and that we are the statues of his marvellous creation. That which pains us, horrifies and frightens us, is that which will make us perfect. Should Pygmalion cease to carve because in his uncovering he might hurt the ivory, knowing as he does the glory that ivory contains?

the_hand_refrains_edward_burne_jones

The Hand Refrains - by Edward Burne Jones

If we are Galatea then that pain is necessary, and will serve to make us extraordinary. What an image! To go through life slowly being uncovered; freed from a lesser substance, until finally we transcend the simple materials of our body and, through love, become something far greater than we were before. It’s a comforting idea, if you can make yourself believe in the ability and motives of the Sculptor. There is simply no other way to be Galatea – the statue cannot uncover itself. It is trapped, buried within a greater matrix, and needs outside intervention to emerge. As Galatea we can inflict pain upon ourselves, carve our own flesh, pare down to the bone – but that is not giving meaning to the existence of pain. It is only wallowing in sensation, and doesn’t serve to extricate us from that pain – it can only anchor us more firmly in it. As Galatea, we need a Pygmalion to give meaning to the experience.

But what of Pygmalion? Could we not be him instead, and create rather than be created? If so, what is it that substance we act upon?

To be Pygmalion is the atheist solution, and it hinges upon natural rather than directed creation – the evolutionist rather than the creationist, the self-portrait rather than the watchmaker. Pygmalion creates because he cannot help himself – he does not intend the life that is Galatea, but he exudes her because to do so is for him as natural as breathing. He must create.

If we shift Pygmalion into the natural world rather than the studio, and focus on that instinct to exude rather than to orchestrate, we can identify a very different picture. This Pygmalion, like Galatea, has no separate matrix with which to work. As atheists we cannot make men from clay or women from ivory, no matter how many gods and goddesses we pray to. The Pygmalion must use his own body to exude, as Galatea cannot to extricate. Instead of uncovering a body within a sculpted material, Pygmalion creates that material by exuding himself – but this time he does not need Venus as an intermediary. Instead of a human sculptor, we can see Pygmalion as the promise of sculpture, the original material.

Deep in the ocean, we can find deposits of chalk and limestone. Sea level change and tectonic effects may see these deposits become landlocked, where they are used, amongst other things, for art and architecture – including sculpture. These substances are made from the accumulation of billions of tiny plates of calcium carbonate. The plates are exuded by single-celled planktonic organisms; an infinity of tiny Pygmalions who, in the waters about Cyprus as elsewhere, produce sculptures so delicate and elaborate and strong that they last for millennia. The function of these plates – called coccoliths – is not yet completely known. They may be a defence against grazing and infection, a buoyancy mechanism, an ultraviolet filter… There are many theories for their existence, just as there are many theories explaining the artist’s need to create.

If this is the kind of sculptor that Pygmalion really is, then his experience of pain or evil is reflected in what he creates, in the body he exudes. What for the plankton might be changes in water temperature that dissolve the calcium they exude, or the presence of continental sediments that swamp the coccoliths and prevent them from accreting into chalk or limestone, or the collisions with other objects that break or damage their delicate spires, is for Pygmalion the hard knocks of life that affect the sculpture of the self. Perhaps this sculpture will be crushed into pieces, and left to sink into the depths where neither sunlight nor humanity can reach. Or perhaps this sculpture can avoid the existence of pain long enough to become perfect, a sterile, symmetrical shape more like the ivory of Galatea than the vessel of a living body. And perhaps… perhaps the flaws and imperfections of a sculpture that accepts the necessary pain of life and incorporates it – along with the concomitant joys and wonder of existence – will form a figure so human, and so glorious, that it will continue to exist, a memoriam to Pygmalion, for millennia after the statue of Galatea has weathered away.

For this enduring Pygmalion, the atheist Pygmalion, the auto-Pygmalion who has no salty Mediterranean goddess to call upon, the problem of pain is that of transforming a natural, inescapable sensation into a sculptured self-portrait, instead of being the willing material of another whose methods and motivations cannot be explored. For the auto-Pygmalion, pain is what you make of it. For Galatea, you are what pain makes of you.

For the auto-Pygmalion, pain is an essential part of art. For Galatea, pain is the tool of the Artist, but the end product does not include it. There may be more comfort to be gained by trusting the Artist, but I would argue that there is more dignity, more self-respect, and more creativity in trusting to self. If Pygmalion produces Galatea, then his other self, the auto-Pygmalion, produces the cathedrals that she sits in, her amphitheatres, her monuments… and her cemeteries.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.